CRIMINALS have taken advantage of the coronavirus lockdown to target places of worship: there have been more than 5000 incidents, including lead-theft, arson, rape and drugs-trafficking, in the past year.
The figures are based on a series of requests by the Countryside Alliance to police forces in the UK, after calls from members and concerned rural residents over crimes at churches in isolated rural areas.
The numbers for the year, up to this July, are on a par with results from a similar survey last year by the campaigning group, but it points out that the current totals include four months of Covid-19 restrictions. That, it says, indicates that more needs to be done to raise public awareness, as well as an increase in funding for security.
Mo Metcalf-Fisher, of the Countryside Alliance, said: “The latest set of figures, out only a year after the incredibly distressing numbers in 2019, make for horrific reading. We cannot risk being engulfed by a church crime-wave, and, clearly, more needs to be done to tackle this problem. Taking into account that during some of this year, the country was in lockdown, it is chilling to learn that criminals, either acting alone or in gangs, have taken advantage of this awful pandemic and continued to target rural churches.
“Of course, people need to have open access to our religious sanctuaries, but the warnings from last year, backed up by these latest figures, must be heeded if we are to seriously protect our places of worship. We need to ramp up access to a greater amount of funding from the protective security scheme, and ensure the scheme remains available, going forward.
“It will also require greater vigilance from the public, particularly in rural areas, where suspicious activity must be reported to police.”
Offences include 278 cases of lead-theft, as well as incidents of rape, arson, and drug-trafficking. Only six of the country’s 45 constabularies failed to answer the request; Police Scotland and Hampshire Police refused outright.
The Metropolitan Police recorded 1106 crimes in religious locations, which include 250 cases of violence against the person, 273 burglaries, 188 offences of arson and criminal damage, and 371 thefts. Sussex Police recorded “exposure and voyeurism” in one cemetery, while sexual offences in the area’s churchyards included six sexual assaults on females aged 13 or above.
In April, at the height of the lockdown, thieves forced their way into a church building in Cheshire and carried out a search, before making off empty-handed. South Yorkshire Police recorded drug-trafficking, possession-of-weapons offences, and three rapes of a female child under 13. It also had the highest number of reported lead-thefts: 22.
In March, the Government carried out a consultation on what steps religious groups felt should be taken to provide greater protection from hate crime for places of worship. The consultation closed in June, and the responses are yet to be made public (News, 20 March).